The Bible has been preserved throughout the millennia with no significant alterations.
Old Testament Canon
The Old Testament texts were originally written on leather scrolls and other writing materials. Jewish scribes carefully created copies to match the originals. The earliest known manuscripts date from 586 BC during the Babylonian exile.
Between 250 and 100 BC, about 70 Jewish scholars in Alexandria, Egypt, translated the Hebrew scriptures into Greek. In this translation, called the Septuagint (meaning 70), the individual books were arranged by subject: historical, poetic, and prophetic.
Later, a group of Jewish scribes called the Masoretes performed the sacred task of copying the Hebrew scriptures (the Old Testament) from approximately AD 500 to 900. They developed a system to count the words in each book to check for accuracy. Any scrolls containing an error were buried.
Before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947, the earliest known Old Testament fragment was Codex Cairensis from AD 895, and the oldest complete text was Aleppo Codex from the tenth century. The Dead Sea Scrolls date from the third century BC to before AD 70 when Rome destroyed Jerusalem. These ancient manuscripts found in the caves of Qumran verified the accuracy of the Masorete manuscripts despite their age difference of over one thousand years.
God oversaw the centuries of transcription and preserved the accuracy of His word.
New Testament Canon
The New Testament books were all written in the Greek on papyrus between AD 45 to 100. By about AD 150, copies of these writings were widely circulated, and believers referred to as the “New Testament” or “New Covenant.”
The early church fathers recognized the gospels and the letters of Paul as the New Testament. For example, Origen (AD 184–253) listed 21 books accepted by the church, and Eusebius (AD 263–339) listed 22.
In AD 382, the Synod at Rome recognized the current 27 books. The African church acknowledged them at the Synod of Hippo in AD 393 and at the Synod of Carthage in AD 397. The Syrian Church only accepted 22 books, and the Ethiopian church acknowledges the 27 plus eight more.
Copying the Bible
From AD 300 to 1400, European scribes copied the Bible onto vellum or parchment. The Vatican Codex and the Sinaitic Codex, written in Greek in AD 325-350, are the oldest vellum extant copies known.
Now, some people claim that over the centuries the copied text must have suffered from “the game of telephone” and the message became corrupted. Nonetheless, the scribes took great care in copying the holy word and developed a system to check for mistakes. Very few errors occurred.
Later, when Johann Gutenberg made the first printed Bible in 1455, Bibles became affordable and more plentiful. But so did the typos. However, most publishers strove for error-free copies of the Word of God and made revisions when errors were found.
The Roman Catholic Church only approved of the Latin Vulgate Bible during this time. In spite of this, reformers believed that the common people should be able to read the Bible for themselves in their own language. Even though they risked their lives, brave men translated the Scriptures into vernacular languages. The first translators, such as John Wycliffe (1320-84) in England and Martin Luther (1483-1546) in Germany, either worked from the Latin Bible or from the few available Greek manuscripts.
Over the years, scholars have improved the English translation, and today many English translations exist. But can we trust their accuracy?
Veracity of God’s Word
Unlike the early translators, today’s Bible scholars have access to high quality Hebrew and Greek scripture texts. These texts are based on thousands of ancient manuscripts and fragments. By comparing all of them, scholars have reconstructed the message of the original Hebrew and Greek. When some of these ancient texts disagree, Bible scholars include margin notes that point out this conflict or explain how some words or phrases can be translated in different ways.
The great number of early manuscripts makes the Bible unique and even more reliable than any other ancient text. Not only do early biblical manuscripts greatly outnumber the ancient Greco-Roman texts, but the biblical sources are also dated much closer to the events they record than those of ancient texts.
For instance, of the 210 copies of Plato’s works, the earliest copy is dated AD 900, 1,200 years after the original. Only 200 copies of Natural History by Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79) exist, and the earliest is dated AD 1000.
In contrast, over 25,000 New Testament fragments exist, and the earliest date within 25 to 150 years of the events recorded. See the links before for more examples.
In the last source listed, author J. Warner Wallace of Cold-Case Christianity gives a great example of how Bible scholars handle variations of different manuscripts.
Because a great number of extant biblical manuscripts, errors can easily be ruled out, and we can be confident that the Scriptures we have today contain the original message.
Do you have a favorite English translation? Mention it in the comments.
In Part 4, I discuss the archaeological evidence for the reliability of the Bible.
Brake, Donald L. A Visual History of the English Bible: The Tumultuous Tale of the Word’s Bestselling Book. Baker Books. Grand Rapids, Michigan: 2008.
Rose Book of Bible Charts, Maps, and Time Lines, 10th anniversary expanded edition. Rose Publishing. Carson, California: 2015.